Spoilers throughout. Seriously, shitloads of them. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Amanda and I saw Bladerunner 2049 last night, in a large cinema in which we were two of only three viewers, a fact that might be explained by the price of £12.20 per ticket, or by the possibility that word of mouth is spreading the message that this film is neither flesh nor fowl. It has passages that are truly great, but it has a number of failings, including irrelevant action sequences, clunky product placement and an unnecessarily extended final battle that dilutes what should have been a character-driven, not an action-driven film.
Ultimately, it is a disappointment. I think the reason for this is that, despite being a film of really ambitious scope and honest artistic vision, it is forced, as a Hollywood science fiction film, to include some elements that do not arise from what the film is really about. To understand that, it is useful to note that the original script writer of Bladerunner, Hampton Fancher, said that the film was “…a nine million dollar movie that was all about personal relationships.” Ridley Scott changed that somewhat, widening the script out (with the help of the second writer, David Peoples) to create the world of the story, but the progress, essentially, is a series of relationships and personal interactions built around the personal quests of Deckard and Batty. It is a character drama, set in an extraordinary world.
And that existential crisis of characters being tortured by their environment is repeated in the new film. The hero, K, is a bladerunner and a replicant, kept in line by constant testing and the threat of retirement (i.e., execution) if his personality ever begins to develop away from unquestioning obedience. His psychic journey, including his love affair with an AI girlfriend, Joi, is told in perfect Bladerunner pacing. The antagonist, Luv, is also a replicant. In an early scene, they recognise their common (in)humanity; their slavery, and their different accommodations to their predicament. Soon afterwards, Luv is obliged to watch a newly-hatched replicant’s murder at the hands of her boss, Wallace, and she sheds a single tear. It is a magnificent piece of acting, and the only human feeling Luv allows herself in the film, besides anger, cruelty and, at the last, fear.
It’s not necessary to go any further into the story. K chases a dream while trying to solve a mystery and, in doing so, undergoes a psychic journey reflected by his surroundings in a world in late terminal decline. I think his hypnotic progress is beautiful, bringing to mind a Russian art house film of the seventies: perhaps a Tarkovsky on a much, much grander scale.
Unfortunately, there is a second element, which intrudes into this powerful dream. Some of the action scenes in this film arise naturally, as the violence in Bladerunner did, like the ebb and flow of the disturbing but engaging dream. Sadly, though, too many action scenes seem to have been included simply to make an exciting trailer. The first time the mood of the film was broken for me was when K travelled to an orphanage, located in a junk yard, which turned out to be a sweatshop in which orphans were used as slave labour. This was beautifully visualised and acted. Besides developing the question of K’s memories and possible past, it introduced the character of the orphanage director, Mister Cotton, wonderfully played by Lennie James as a Dickensian workhouse director impoverished by his own moral derangement. However, on the way, and apropos of nothing, K’s spinner (flying car) is shot down, he fights a load of feral scavengers and is rescued by satellite artillery that Luv controls from her office as she’s getting her nails done. The orphanage scene is a key section of K’s hero quest and growing identity crisis, and it is entirely in keeping with the main tone of the film. The action sequence overshadows it; it’s all flash-bang, as if it is introducing a new plot element, but then it ends and we go back to where he was headed before it happened with nothing learned. It’s a CGI action sequence shoe-horned in.
Similarly, the director, or writer, or somebody, seems to have had a crisis of nerve during the most powerful and visually unique extended passage of the film. Having realised that he is in mortal competition with Luv for the answer to the mystery of replicant reproduction, K travels to an irradiated Las Vegas to seek out Deckard. His journey there, seen, at first, through the camera of his spinner’s drone reconnaissance vehicle and then as a series of gorgeous shots of him walking through a graveyard of obscene sculptures in the haze of a post-nuclear wasteland, should be the equivalent of Roy Batty’s entrance into Sebastian’s apartment building after Prys’ death in the original film. It is hallucinatory, threatening and compelling – the image to the right here gives an idea of the aesthetic, although it shows Deckard, for some reason, rather than K. As the casino in which Deckard is living appears out of the mist, K comes across some beehives, and the buzzing joins the lovely soundscape, breaking the desert’s eeriness. Finally, K mounts the steps of the casino and enters, into the mock classicism of ruined commercial luxury.
The passage takes the time to allow the viewer to, first savour the imagery and then to read meaning into it. It is a masterpiece. Now, he has reached his destination and finds his quarry but, as if everyone who has just created that sequence has suddenly gone from genius to tone-deaf, they introduce a classic Hollywood male-bonding fight into the scene. It is a grinding, cacophanous halt in the proceedings. Far better would have been to simply allow the two men to work one another out in sparse dialogue, as they later do – the fight resolves nothing. Instead, it kills the mood for the scenes that follow, in one of the richest sets of the film, as they discuss, misunderstand and fence with one another over a glass of clumsily product-placemented whiskey. Despite the advertising forced into it, this is a return to the true pace of the film, but my impatience with the fight scene – less Bladerunner 2 than Lethal Weapon 3 – had thrown me off track. I became bored here, took a while to appreciate the beauty of K’s discovery of a holographic jukebox on which he played Sinatra performing One For My Baby, and was unready for the (more plot-driven) action scene that exploded in the following scene. I’ve embedded the song here, because it really is the best piece of music in the film.
By now, I had realised that I was unhappy with the film. This is a tragedy, as much of the resolution, taking the better part of an hour yet, is just as beautiful as the best of what had come before, but I was outside it now, no longer really feeling it; just watching it. Joi, K’s AI lover, whom he had deleted from his apartment network for security reasons and downloaded to a portable stick, is dead. He is bereaved, disillusioned of his hope of having had an unremembered past and co-opted into a replicant revolution for which he feels little ardour. Unsure whether to carry out the task the rebels have foisted on him or simply to kill himself, he wanders the elevated sidewalks of LA, surrounded by the worn-down Bladerunner cityscape that is so familiar now. He is solicited by an advert: a giant, naked image of the same model of AI he is mourning and, in a shot that should be sleazy, Gosling performs, wordlessly, a remarkable moment of internalised soliloquy. The advertisment’s tagline is, “Everything you want to hear; everything you want to see”; it is a wretched, terrible commodification of a beautiful young woman and, as with all artificial life in the film, we wonder whether she is aware, or simply a mechanised recording. Then she kneels before him, points to him, and addresses him as ‘Joe’; the name Joi gave him to humanise him. She is no longer an object: they are allies.
I take issue with one more sequence, although, given the chance to cut the film myself, this one would be shortened, not removed. The final battle, in which K kills Luv and rescues Deckard, is a three parter, in standard Hollywood fashion, in which the baddy initially has the upper hand, the goody suffers a terrible wound, they break apart to pursue the mcguffin (Deckard, handcuffed to a car sinking under a deluge) and the goody overcomes the baddy with the power of moral rectitude and a nice dose of sadism; in this case, quite rapey sadism. It is overlong and becomes boring. I would have taken out the section on the concrete of the dam in which Luv displays her martial arts props: it’s just not necessary. It’s there because the fight director thought you can’t have a decent fight in a sinking car. Where we are heading is to a reconciliation between Deckard and his daughter, and to a scene that should have given me goosebumps, in which the, largely disappointing, soundtrack went from teasing to, finally, fully referencing the original film’s soundtrack as K, his quest complete, closes his eyes and dies. The fact that that scene’s force only hit me afterwards was a testament to the way the worst of what had preceded it had so overshadowed the film-makers’ better intentions.
Beautifully acted, beautifully designed and beautifully shot, this film is a monument to how not to edit a movie. It is a masterpiece dragged down to tedium by a load of formulaic marketing fodder.
However, I’m looking forward to the director’s cut.